Joint effort to save lake

By Michael Bennett

Lake Brunner and its catchment is a very special area; it is exceptionally beautiful and important for recreational use. From the mid-90s to 2004, lake monitoring data showed a gradual water quality decline and the West Coast Regional Council (WCRC) began working with local farmers to address Lake Brunner's declining water quality.

Farmers, as users of phosphorous, the key limiting nutrient in the lake, came under the spotlight, with many calling for regulation of farming and forced reductions of phosphorous fertiliser use.

From the outset, farmers in the catchment have made it clear they valued Lake Brunner and wanted to look after it, but they also wanted to avoid regulation, which did not consider farm investment consequences, and wanted evidence there was an issue.

Almost all farmers in the catchment have committed to voluntary farm plans and protective measures, such as stock exclusion from waterways and good effluent management practice.

This work is believed to have contributed to a stabilisation in lake water quality since the early 2000s.

After a hearing last year, WCRC decided to step back from "grand-parenting" phosphorous use, restricting it to historical levels to focus on farm management practice.

This is hugely positive for farmers because phosphorous fertiliser use is very uneven from year to year and depends on factors such as economic returns and timing of pasture renewal programmes. Pegging phosphorous use to historic levels would have been devastating for some farmers and of little consequence to others. This also made property value uncertain and hindered farm sales in the catchment.

Concerted advocacy by Federated Farmers and WCRC's active fostering a stewardship ethic among farmers were key factors in achieving this outcome.

Katie Milne, Federated Farmers national board member, was involved from the early stages and has been a key supporter of both plans and advocacy with the council. "Initially we were all angry at being singled out as our practices were no different than anywhere else," Milne says.

"All of the initial ideas of what to do from some council staff were around cutting fertiliser use and limiting the type of fertiliser allowed in the catchment.

"No thought was given to the impacts to our livelihoods at that stage.

"That is when we really mobilised and got the research going, and started to engage with council so we could be part of the solution.

"It should not be forgotten that farmers always want to do the right thing by the environment, but realistically we must be able to farm profitably in the end."

Commitment by all involved to open discussion of issues, development of logical solutions, and basing decisions on good information was critical to a good outcome.

Research projects around nutrient run-off were conducted in the catchment over three seasons to help see what would give the most bang for the buck.

This gave farmers confidence that what they would be asked to do would have real meaning and would not be something others assumed would work from modelling in other areas.

It has also showed assumptions made were never on the money when the true results came out.

This is because the models all had limits. For example, the assumptions with rainfall did not go high enough to allow for what was happening in the catchment.

There are still some final hurdles to get over with effluent management and we are working through that right now. At least now farmers and council understand each other and have a good working relationship. This is critical, as farmers' goodwill could easily be destroyed by the stroke of a council planner's pen.

MIchael Bennett is the Federated Farmers regional policy adviser.

- Hamilton News

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